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The Zoo is test fitting tiny radio trackers to 50 rare Regent Honeyeaters before they are released into the wild next month.

Taronga Bird Keeper, Michael Shiels, said: “With such tiny birds, fitting the transmitters is very intricate work, so experts from the Regent Honeyeater Recovery Team have been coaching us.

Little is known about the movements of these endangered birds, which are highly migratory and nest more than 19 metres above the ground, so the transmitters will help unlock some secrets about how they use the forests.”

The harnesses are made of a linen-cotton blend and look like a tiny backpack with loops for their wings. The transmitter sits on their backs so the birds can fly and do everything they normally do. The cotton is chosen as it will deteriorate so the transmitter can fall off after it finishes working.

Fitting of the harnesses is one of the final stages in preparing the birds for release. Taronga’s keepers have worked for many months pairing adult birds, breeding and caring for hatchlings and providing them with the skills to survive on the wild.

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“The release of the birds into the wild will be the culmination of a lot of hard work and effort,” said Michael.

“Preparations started months and months ago when we chose our breeding pairs, and assisted the adult birds with their breeding responsibilities by providing lots of native flowers and crickets which they feast on. We also scoured the Zoo for spider webs, a favourite material which the birds make their nests with, “said Michael.

At just a few days of age, the keepers also played the hatchlings recordings of songs from wild Regent Honeyeaters.

“We try to make sure that the birds bred at the Zoo are as similar to their wild cousins as possible. To ensure that they don’t have a ‘zoo accent’ we have been playing them callings from birds living in the forests where they will be released. We hope that by doing this they will not only look and act the same, but sound the same. This could increase their survival chances and acceptance by the local population.”

The recovery Program not only releases zoo bred birds into the wild, but also incorporates habitat restoration and education of the local communities to help safeguard a future for the species.

Taronga’s Education Centre has begun working with local schools to raise awareness about the plight of this species. Three public schools were visited by Taronga’s Education team late last year who showed them the important of conserving this endangered species. It is planned that the three schools will be involved in a tree planting day to coincide with the release of the Zoo-bred birds in May.

Taronga has been committed to Regent Honeyeater conservation for more than a decade. The first Regent Honeyeaters arrived at Taronga Zoo in September 1995.  Keepers from the Zoo collected 10 unrelated chicks from the wild from the only two remaining wild populations in Australia located at Capertee Valley NSW and Chiltern, Victoria to begin the Recovery Breeding Program.

The striking yellow and black Regent Honeyeaters have been rapidly disappearing from their native habitat, in the Box and Ironbox forests of the Great Dividing Range at an alarming rate, due to loss of their woodland homes.

Michael said: “These tiny Australian birds have already gone extinct in South Australia, and there are only small populations left in Victoria, NSW and Queensland.”

“This year there have been fewer sightings of the Regent Honeyeaters in the wild than ever before. In a hope to reverse this trend we have been working with other Australian Zoos including Adelaide and Melbourne and the Australian Reptile Park to undertake a large-scale breeding program.” 

Along with the other partners, Taronga will release the birds into the wild at Chiltern, Victoria, this May, to coincide with the peak flowering period of their preferred food plants, the Box and Iron Bark Eucalyptus, giving them the best chance of survival.

“So researchers can monitor and learn more about the species, when we arrive at the release site, all of the birds will need to be fitted with radio transmitters attached either to their tail or by a minuscule harness to their backs,” said Michael.

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